Affirmative Action?

I recently went to a lecture by Dr. Liliana Garces, from Pennsylvania State University on the implications that the 2013 Supreme Court decision Fisher v. University of Texas at Austin has had on American post-secondary institutions.

Abigail Fisher had applied to the University of Texas and was rejected. Fisher, who is white, filed a lawsuit that argued that she had been victim to racial discrimination because minorities with less impressive credentials had been accepted. Students argued that race should not be used in the admissions process if there are other race-neutral ways the institution could effectively obtain diversity. The court decided that “race-neutral” forms of obtaining diversity such as the top 10% plan were not sufficient in maintaining and increasing the school’s diversity. The court didn’t upturn Affirmative Action, but did decide that Affirmative Action programs in institutions must be under ‘strict scrutiny’ and that schools must effectively document their need to use race as an admissions factor. They will need to prove that there are no other means for obtaining race diversity in a community.

Dr. Garces spoke about the importance of looking at the intent of Affirmative Action programs. She talked about the importance of diversity to learning communities because it increases critical thinking, civic engagement and decreases prejudices. Diversity is important to preventing the harms that come from racial separation like stereotypes. Garces feels that these policies need to be in place in order for there to be diversity. She talked about how it is difficult to entirely separate race from the admissions process. Even without Affirmative Action, the Top 10% plan and “race-blind” application processes, which are attempts to remove race as a factor are still rooted in race issues and still allow universities to consider race in admissions.

In her lecture, Garces talked about some of her issues with the color-blind framework. People often consider classifying people on the basis of race as negative, but she says that it can be important to opening up the topic for discussion. Race often operates at a sub-conscious level and to Garces, identifying race can allow us to see the difference between the things that are law and what is happening in our social reality.  People often feel underpowered when talking about race out of fear that talking about race makes you racist. I think that it is important for people to feel comfortable talking about these issues.

Affirmative Action might not be the only tool for combatting the actual issues here. Numbers are important, but it goes beyond just admissions.  It is important to look at how race is affecting our everyday interactions. What kinds of experiences are people having and how do we use these as a way to learn how to better have an inclusive community? I wonder what ways we can take initiative within St. Olaf to make race an issue that we attempt to overcome and to make it part of our everyday discussions. I think that events like AuthenticOles are a good way to make people aware and are positive first steps in this process. Getting people engaged in the discussion about race would be positive for all of us.